a personal memoir
Lithuania lauds heroes Darius and Girenas who attempted Atlantic flight July 15, 1933
By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet
Lithuanian 10 Litu note honoring Cap Stepovis Darius and Lt Stasys Girenas who flew a Bellanca CH300 (below) during their heroic but ill-fated crossing of the North Atlantic.
I went to Lithuania in search of aviation history and I found more than I had expected. Lithuania is 1 of the 3 small Baltic republics, the other 2 being Latvia and Estonia. It has a long and checkered history.
In the 15th century, Lithuania was one of the great powers in Europe. Its territory included what is now Poland and much more. After becoming part of the Russian Empire, it gained independence between the 2 World Wars, was reacquired by Russia (by then the Soviet Union) in 1940, and finally again achieved independence when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
Lithuania is a small country. Its territory is roughly twice the size of Massachusetts, with a population of 3.4 million.
All countries, even small ones, need national heroes, and this they often find in the field of aviation. In the USA we have the Wright Brothers, Doolittle, Armstrong, etc. The Germans have Richthofen, Lilienthal, etc. The British have DeHavilland, the French Bleriot, the Brazilians Santos Dumont.
Remembering their early aviation heroes, the country of Lithuania has immortalized on postage stamps and banknotes 2 1930s fliers who were killed while attempting an Atlantic crossing in a Bellanca CH300.
Lithuanians also have their own aviation heroes although their attempted record ended in a fatal crash. They are Lithuanian-American pilots Captain Stepovis Darius and Lt Stasys Girenas. They were flying a Bellanca CH300 named Lituanica, which was a 6-seat single-engine (Wrights Whirlwind powered) aircraft.
Only 35 of this model were manufactured. On July 15, 1933 our 2 heroes took off from New York's Floyd Bennett Field for an attempted record flight nonstop to the city of Kaunas in their native country, Lithuania. As a sign of solidarity and patriotism, the pilots publicly dedicated the flight to the young Lithuanian nation. The total distance was about 4388 miles.
Darius and Girenas crossed the Atlantic, covering a distance of 3984 miles in 37 hrs and 11 mins before they ran into bad weather near Soldin, Germany and tragically crashed just 404 miles from their intended destination.
This would not go down in history as just another attempted record flight to end in disaster. There were many flights like this but few of them achieved such long lasting fame.
Despite the Lituanica's catastrophic end Darius and Girenas are credited with piloting the 2nd longest and most navigationally precise flight of their time—a remarkable feat considering they had no navigational equipment onboard.
Today, a scale model of the Lituanica hangs from the ceiling at the Vilnius Intl Airport. The remains of the crashed aircraft are on display at the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas. I had to get special permission from the director of the museum to photograph this exhibit. Photography is forbidden but I gave her a small Wright Brothers pin and the rules were quickly relaxed.
Also, there are several monuments celebrating the 2 aviators. One was carved into a large boulder by a man while hiding out in the forests during the German occupation in World War II. He passed his time creating this monument. Also the 10 Litu note of Lithuanian currency has a picture of the 2 pilots on the front and a picture of the Lituanica in flight on the back. I have also seen a collection of about 30 different Lithuanian postage stamps celebrating this event.
But I did not sell any aircraft in Lithuania. According to latest statistics, there is not a single business jet registered in that Baltic country.
Alex Kvassay sold Beech and Learjet aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation
as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 87, he is retired and living in Wichita KS. Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure and recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea, Cuba and Algeria.